Photographer Accuses Former Bloomberg Campaign Strategist of Sexual Assault

An aspiring photographer claims she was sexually assaulted by then-New York City mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg’s top media strategist at the billionaire businessman’s campaign headquarters during his 2001 run for local office.

The alleged assault came just three days after 9/11, according to a bombshell lawsuit filed Monday by Massachusetts resident Petra Christina Beter, who says she was still shellshocked from snapping pics at Ground Zero when well-known Democratic operative Duane Baughman suddenly attacked her in a break room.

“As [Beter] bent down to look for the Coke at the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, Defendant Baughman suddenly came behind [her], grabbed [her] head and pushed his crotch into the right side of her face,” Beter’s complaint states. “[Beter] felt Baughman’s penis push into her face, close to her mouth. Baughman pushed [Beter’s] head toward him like he wanted her to perform oral sex and said, ‘You want it.’”

Baughman then shoved Beter to the floor and mounted her, but quickly stepped off when she started to scream, the complaint goes on. When she looked up, Baughman was standing over her, it says. Future Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler heard the commotion and ran in, as Baughman “put his hands in the air and started backing away from [Beter],” the complaint alleges. However, it claims Skyler stayed silent about what he had just seen, telling Beter simply, “Let’s go get some coffee.”

Baughman, who over the summer sued Beter for defamation in federal court for, according to his June 6 complaint, bringing her accusations to “his clients, newspaper reporters, professional colleagues, attorneys, courts, and essentially anyone willing to listen,” did not immediately respond on Monday to a request for comment by The Daily Beast.

Beter is suing Baughman, along with Skyler, and a third man, Bloomberg adviser Douglas Schoen, who she says both facilitated the attack, under New York State’s Adult Survivors Act (ASA). The ASA provided a one-year “lookback window” during which victims could bring civil suits against their alleged attackers in cases that had otherwise expired under the statute of limitations. Skyler and Schoen did not immediately respond on Monday to messages seeking comment.

Beter’s lawyer, Ian Michael Bryson, told The Daily Beast, “Too often it is a tactic of defendants in sexual assault cases to preemptively sue their accusers for defamation and we strive to put an end to this practice.”

The legal team representing Baughman in the federal defamation case referred The Daily Beast to the complaint they filed on his behalf.

In it, Baughman portrays Beter as an opportunist who has been trying to extort him for a payout since 2005. Following Bloomberg’s win, Baughman’s suit claims Beter saw a news article about the campaign’s “historic spending,” after which she decided she “wanted a bigger piece of the pie” and demanded $250,000 for photos she said had been used withiout her permission. When Baughman ignored her subsequent demands for up to $1 million, his lawsuit says Beter “decided to take revenge, and thus began her smear campaign which years later morphed into her fictionalized accusations of sexual assault.”

Petra Beter says she was assaulted by a top campaign strategist for Michael Bloomberg during his 2001 mayoral campaign.

Robert Rosamilio/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Beter’s allegations can be traced back to 1998, when she met Schoen at the age of 24, according to her complaint.

“Upon meeting [Beter], Schoen immediately attempted to romantically pursue her,” it says. “[Beter] rebuffed Schoen’s attempts stating that she had a boyfriend and advised Schoen not to attempt to contact her further.”

But Beter’s boyfriend at the time encouraged her to stay in touch with Schoen “given his high status in the political world,” the complaint goes on. “As such, [Beter] began meeting with Schoen for lunch at both the Harvard Club and ‘44’ in the Royalton Hotel, New York City. During these meetings, Schoen impressed the young [Beter] with stories of his interactions with President Clinton and a very wealthy man who was toying with the idea of running for mayor of New York City. [Beter] would soon learn that man was Michael Bloomberg.”

Schoen called Beter his “favorite confidante,” and offered to put her in touch with Baughman for photography work, the complaint continues, emphasizing that, at no time did Beter “enter into a romantic or sexual relationship with Schoen.”

Baughman, Skyler, and Beter, who lived in lower Manhattan at the time, scheduled an appointment to meet for lunch on Sept. 11, 2001 “to discuss “a potential employment opportunity,” according to the complaint. But the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers derailed that get-together. Beter wound up photographing the collapse of the iconic buildings and the heartwrenching aftermath, leaving her “emotionally and physically injured,” the complaint states.

That evening, Schoen called Beter and said someone would be reaching out to her about photographing Bloomberg for the last two months of his campaign, according to the complaint.

“[Beter] told Schoen that she was traumatized by the horrific acts of violence she witnessed earlier that day and did not think she was in the right frame of mind to work,” it says.

Later that night, Baughman—whom Beter had never met before—called her “insisting she come to Bloomberg’s campaign headquarters and photograph Bloomberg the following two days while he visited synagogues and police and fire staging areas,” the complaint states. It says she told Baughman that she was too shaken up by what she had seen, and suggested the campaign hire a different photographer. Over the next few days, Baughman kept pushing, according to the complaint. Beter said she was “too scared” to leave her home, and besides, the police checkpoints set up around Manhattan made it hard to travel around the city.

Beter declined Baughman’s offer to put her up at the Essex House, where the rest of the campaign staff was staying, the complaint states. On the evening of Sept. 13, it says Baughman called Beter and told her he’d be picking her up from her apartment the following morning. When Baughman arrived, a reluctant Beter went with him to a Bloomberg campaign office in Chelsea, according to the complaint. She was assigned to take pictures of the future mayor arriving at the space to thank rescue personnel who had been using it as a staging area, the complaint states.

After making little progress through blocked and closed-off city streets already “jammed with rescue personnel, military convoys,” Baughman and Beter finally walked to the office through pouring rain, according to the complaint. Bloomberg still hadn’t shown up an hour later, and although Beter says she tried to back out of the gig again, Baughman convinced her to go with him to the Bloomberg campaign headquarters on 56th Street. On the ride there, in a campaign van, Baughman invaded Beter’s personal space and asked her out to dinner, the complaint states. But when Beter declined, saying she had other plans, it says Baughman “became visibly angry and stopped speaking to or touching [Beter] for the remainder of the car ride.”

A photo Petra Beter took of one of the towers of the World Trade Center collapses after being struck by a hijacked commercial airplane on Sept. 11, 2001.

A photo Petra Beter took on 9/11, which she says traumatized her deeply.

Petra Beter/Reuters

When they got to Bloomberg’s campaign HQ, it was empty, save for Skyler. He and Baughman led her to a small room to wait, after which they brought her a cup of coffee. When Beter said she’d prefer a Diet Coke, Skyler directed her to the fridge and left the room, according to the complaint. That’s when Baughman assaulted her, Beter alleges.

Skyler silently ushered Beter out of the building, and across the street to a deli, where Beter realized she had left her bag, cell phone, wallet, and camera behind, the complaint continues. Once she composed herself, it says Beter headed back with Skyler, only to learn that Bloomberg wanted to be photographed at the Bloomberg LP offices, not the campaign headquarters. When she and Skyler arrived, Beter says Bloomberg was “visibly irritated that he had been kept waiting.”

“Candidate Bloomberg shook his head as [Beter] proceeded to tell him that she was not acting like herself since she had very recently witnessed the 9/11 terror attacks,” the complaint states. “Candidate Bloomberg continued blankly staring at [Beter] as she physically shook due to nerves and the fact that the man that had recently sexually assaulted her was still in the room. Plaintiff continued offering apologies. Then, Candidate Bloomberg suddenly said, ‘Let’s get to work.’”

Beter’s complaint says she was “terrified,” but stayed to shoot two rolls of film anyway. She finally left and went straight home, according to the complaint. The next time Beter spoke to Schoen, on Sept. 15, he asked how things went at the shoot with Bloomberg.

“[Beter] hesitated to reply and before [she] had the chance to respond, Defendant Schoen asked ‘What happened? Did Duane do something to you? What did Duane do to you?’” the complaint states.

When Beter began to explain, her complaint says Schoen responded, “Don’t tell anyone about this. You still want to work for Bloomberg, don’t you?… I told him not to touch you. Look, this kind of thing happens all the time. He’s done this kind of thing before.”

Beter is asking for damages in an amount to be determined at trial.

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